ORLANDO, Fla. -- Maybe it’s the close quarters, eyeballing the competition up close and personal every day, on and off he court.
Or perhaps it was the four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic that stripped away all the trappings of the strangest NBA regular season on record.
Whatever it is, it’s safe to say that there is absolutely no fear factor in these playoffs -- at least not in the conference semifinals.
Gone are the days of the Golden State Warriors and whatever team LeBron James is on reserving spots in The Finals. This NBA campus has flattened out the competition and given way to a feeling that this is anyone’s Larry O’Brien Trophy, provided you can sustain the energy needed to overcome the obstacles in the way.
There’s no homecourt advantage to lean on. The environment that seemed so unfamiliar when teams arrived two months ago required the same adjustment from everyone, no matter your record or status in the league’s pecking order.
The regular-season juggernauts -- the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers in the Western Conference and the Milwaukee Bucks and defending-champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference -- seem like mere mortals here.
The Clippers went deep into the fourth quarter chasing the Denver Nuggets to earn their 113-107 comeback Game 3 win Monday night at Advent Health Arena. Their will down the stretch on both ends of the floor proved the difference in them taking a 2-1 series lead as Game 4 looms Wednesday (9 ET, ESPN).
The Clippers closed the second quarter and the game with furious, end-to-end effort. Before halftime, they cut the Nuggets' lead from 57-46 to 59-57. In the game's final eight minutes, the Clippers outscored the Nuggets 21-10 as stars Paul George and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard applied defensive pressure.
"Both ends of the floor, Paul really exerted himself and really took a leadership role in this game," Clippers guard Lou Williams said. "I think a lot of our guys decided in the fourth quarter the we just didn’t want to lose this game. We didn’t want to have that feeling, especially after the type of game we had the last game. And I thought Paul was the head of the snake on both ends of the floor just really being aggressive for us."
The Clippers are the only higher seed still playing with a lead in their series. The Bucks and Raptors are both facing elimination games, while the Lakers are tied 1-1 with the Houston Rockets. The Clippers, still smarting from getting clocked by the Nuggets in Game 2, were not interested in enduring similar stress.
"We felt it, I’m sure you guys saw it," George said. "We were not going to be the team that lost tonight."
Closing Game 3 with smothering defense and timely plays is the sort of comprehensive effort needed to survive and advance in this playoff atmosphere.
Game 3 was a showcase of what the Clippers have to offer when they're locked in. There was George’s team-high 32 points and air-tight defense on Nuggets star Jamal Murray all game long. Leonard had 23 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and a wicked middle fingertip block on a Murray dunk attempt at the rim. Patrick Beverley had clutch steals and Williams had clutch baskets (his driving lay with 2:04 to play gave the Clippers a 109-103 lead).
"It was all of our defense down the stretch," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "The game came down to one of the two teams was going to play some defense. And for three and half quarters, both teams were basically scoring. And then the last six minutes it was our defense. I thought that play by Kawhi was amazing. ... We had our lapses, there’s no doubt about that. But when we locked in, we were pretty good."
I think a lot of our guys decided in the fourth quarter the we just didn’t want to lose this game."
The Clippers haven't lost back-to-back games since mid-February and have won four of their last five games. That includes two straight wins to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and two of three against a potent Denver squad.
"We held a team to 107 points, one of the best offenses in the league," Beverley said, "so I would say that was good defense. Overall, I would say we did what we needed to do. Got key stops when we needed to get key stops. Got key rebounds when we needed to get key rebounds. Give Denver a lot of credit, coming from a seven-game series. The type of play they came out here with, energetic, you got to give them a lot of credit."
Just don’t put them on the Clippers’ level, not yet. They aren’t playing with the same pressure.
These Clippers are well aware of the expectations, both internal and external, they brought with them to Orlando.
The burden of playing up to those sky-high expectations, however, has proved difficult. Rivers knows his team is still finding its way. Leonard and George are still negotiating their 1-2 superstar dynamic. The full roster has been available for just 14 games. This team is still a work in progress -- even this late in the season.
But when they turned the intensity up down the stretch, the difference between Denver and LA was hard to miss.
Playing like that consistently remains the challenge.
"It’s basketball," George said. "We’re not a perfect team by any means. This game is made on stretches. One team gets hot and gets going. The other team rallies back. But this game is always predicted on whoever plays defense first wins. And I thought we incorporated that and put this game away."
The Nuggets walked away from Game 3 feeling like they let the Clippers off the hook (as opposed to the Clippers stopping them). That fear factor, even after being manhandled down the stretch, isn’t there.
"They're talented," Jokic said. "They're favorite on paper and everything, have maybe better starting unit, more players, whatever. Coach, whatever. But we can fight. We can give ourselves a chance to win the game, like we did in the last two games. Today, we didn't close well ... the effort just needs to be there to give ourselves a chance to win a game."
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